On the Road with Bush

Say what you want about his policies, George W. Bush can be a gracious man. U.S. presidents traveling the world—especially this very dangerous part of the world—tend to have an effect on locals that is reminiscent of Godzilla tromping through Tokyo. In order to secure the president the Secret Service will order entire neighborhoods evacuated, main thoroughfares closed off, and businesses shuttered—disrupting thousands of lives and generating fear and loathing as well as headlines. So it went as Bush made a historic visit Thursday—the "first political visit by a U.S. president," his secretary of state, Condi Rice, proudly told me—to the Palestinian protostate and its key cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. (Bill Clinton did a brief Christmas stopover at the latter in 1998.)

First there was Bush's 45-car motorcade to Ramallah, where he held hands with a beaming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters but didn't leave many other smiling faces in his wake. That was followed by an "aircade" of Marine choppers into Bethlehem, where townspeople were frozen in place by their own Palestinian police, who raised guns at them in alleyways, while Bush took his time touring the grotto where Jesus was allegedly born. Bottom line, the president didn't win many friends in Palestine (and he didn't have many to start with). But to his credit, Bush seemed acutely aware of the distress he was causing. "I want to thank the people of Bethlehem for enduring a presidential visit," Bush said. He also noted that while his vast motorcade didn't have to go through any Israeli checkpoints, Ramallahans still did every day, and he knew they experienced "massive frustration." Those were nice touches. I don't remember Clinton ever saying things like that.

Nice touches, however, don't get remembered long. Graciousness does not a legacy make. And legacy-building is what this trip is mainly about. With many of the regular White House correspondents back in the states covering the primaries, as eager as Tibetan monks to find the next Anointed One, Bush knows that each passing month means he'll get less and less attention—and command less and less leverage. And so he seems keen to clarify what he thinks his legacy might be while the world's still listening.

Instead of clarity, though, we are all just getting more confused. We've often heard him say he believes in freedom. And in democracy. And peace. And in Christ as his Savior. Now the references are coming fast and furious, in mix-and-match rhetoric that seems to use these terms and ideas almost interchangeably. On Thursday Bush blended all of them together, in a kind of legacy stew. Freedom and democracy, he told Palestinians, would help them achieve an agreement with the Israelis. "Free societies yield peace," Bush said, though he didn't say how freedom or democracy would make it any easier for them to give up West Bank land they believe is theirs. And the presence of Christ's birthplace in their land would somehow help things along too, Bush suggested. "Some day I hope that as a result of a formation of a Palestinian state there won't be walls and checkpoints, that people will be able to move freely in a democratic state," the president said after his visit to the Church of the Nativity, built in A.D. 529 over the cave that many Christians believe was Jesus's birthplace. "That's the vision, greatly inspired by my belief that there is an Almighty," he said. "And a gift of that Almighty to each man, woman and child on the face of the earth is freedom. And I felt it strongly here today."

Enough already. We've had a president who was the Great Emancipator. And another who was the Great Communicator. Bush is the Great Conflater. In his first term he conflated the threat from Al Qaeda with the threat from Saddam ("You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror," Bush said in September 2002), and then tossed groups like Hizbullah and Hamas into the mix (though their goals were markedly different from Al Qaeda's). Now Bush is suggesting that all the problems he lumped in together can be solved by an equally lumpy panacea of freedom and democracy.

Bush is hardly the first president to evangelize about freedom and democracy, with a healthy helping of Jesus added in. (If you doubt this, go reread the speeches of Woodrow Wilson, a pastor's son.) And, like Bush, many presidents have been ridiculed overseas by foreign counterparts who pooh-pooh this kind of rhetoric, even while the world has been gradually remade in America's freedom-loving image. (Indeed, the leitmotif of the Bush administration has been its insistence that the Mideast undergo the same transformation almost every other region has.)

But with just 12 months left in his tenure to achieve a Palestinian state—which, along with Iraq, would be his main legacy—this kind of simplistic, conflationary thinking just won't cut it anymore. Bush isn't fooling anyone. He may be right in saying that waiting for a democratic Palestinian authority under Abbas, and ignoring Yasir Arafat, was necessary; such a state is less likely to embrace terrorism, he argued. But it's also true that the elections that yielded this outcome (and which Bush insisted on) had some pretty dire effects, too. Mainly they empowered Hamas, which has taken over Gaza and regularly permits rockets to be fired on Israel—something Abbas is powerless to stop. So democracy solved one problem, created another and did nothing to resolve the basic issue—which is that Israelis and Palestinians want to enjoy the benefits of democracy on the same plot of land. A mixed blessing, to say the least.

Bush knows all this, of course. So it doesn't help his cause to pretend that democracy or the "universality of freedom," as he called it today, are going to do anything at all to get the Israelis or Palestinians to move on this intractable issue. Nor does it speed things along to say to the Palestinians, as Bush did today, "Do you want a future based upon a democratic state? Or do you want the same old stuff?" Those talking points are no answer to the signs that hung along the president's motorcade route—the silent testimony left by angry residents who had been ushered away. "Jerusalem is ours," one sign read. "No apartheid walls," said another. "Zionism is racism," read many.

Yes, Bush is committed to Palestinian statehood. His national security adviser, Steve Hadley, said Thursday evening that the president would be back, and Rice is expected to make several visits. Bush is also correct to say that past U.S. efforts to impose a solution have failed, and that he'd prefer to let the Israelis and Palestinians work out as much as they can themselves while he "nudges the process forward." "There's great anticipation that all an American president has to do is to step in," Bush said. "That's not how the system works."

But everyone knows this bilateral process is only going to run on its own for so long. Very soon now it will stall. Neither Abbas nor Olmert has anything close to the public support he needs to resolve basic issues, like West Bank settlements for the Israelis, or the right of return for the Palestinians. In order to give Abbas the "contiguous" state Bush says he should get ("Swiss cheese isn't going to work," Bush said), Olmert would need to oust many tens of thousands of Israeli settlers in long-developed neighborhoods. In order to surrender the right of return for Palestinians, an Israeli red line on which Olmert will never budge, Abbas will have to tell some 2 million of his countrymen in exile, many in refugee camps, they can never have their homes back. Both leaders know they risk ouster or even assassination if they give on these points, and they will avoid them until the end. Only a hard American shove can change things. The time for graciousness and rhetoric may be over.